Celebrating successes: Academies program alumni mark 15 years

Six-year-old Kimora Pulley, the daughter of alumna Victoria Pulley, poses with graduates and teacher Judy Aronson (first row, second from the right). Kimora said she hopes to attend the Academies@Englewood some day.


ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — The Martin Luther King Jr. Hall on the Dwight Morrow High School campus was recently filled with young adults who hit the trifecta for success: intelligence, hard work and huge ambition. They were the graduates of the Academies@ Englewood.

These bright and accomplished millennials had come to celebrate their school’s 15th anniversary and the outstanding education that the school and its teachers had given them.

Since 2002, the Academies@Englewood program, housed at Dwight Morrow High School, has been a success story, starring academic superstars and teachers. Fifteen years ago, no one believed that it would survive many challenges, but it has survived, and with flying colors.

The Academies@Englewood is a magnet high school that offers college prep and AP classes as well as five “majors” to its students: law and public safety, finance, biomedicine, information systems and pre-engineering.

On Nov. 25, hundreds of the school’s students and faculty gathered in the halls adjacent to greet one another and share their success stories. Parents also reminisced at how the Englewood Public School system took a chance on a new concept in education 15 years ago and how this acclaimed program continues to garner support.

The celebration had catered food: guacamole and salsa appetizers donated by Blue Moon Mexican Cafe, chicken fingers from Chick-fil-A and homemade desserts brought by teachers and parents.

The hallways and meeting hall were decorated with several displays: editions of the school newspaper, The Maroon Tribune, yearbooks from 2006 to 2017 and a table where students sold T-shirts and tickets for Englewood Idol, a major annual fundraiser for the Dr. John Grieco Scholarship Fund, named for the Englewood Public School District Superintendent of Schools and a tribute to his work in founding the Academies program.

The school reunion was organized by Judy Aronson, a history teacher that works year-round to promote school and community events. She was assisted by Mindy Rochman, an English teacher and the senior class advisor.

The Academies@Englewood was modeled after the successful Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, one of the 285 public and 50 private schools nationwide to be recognized as a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School. The concept of this kind of magnet school in Englewood was put into motion 17 years ago by Grieco, who was then the superintendent.

So, in 2002, the Academies@ Englewood opened its doors, with 110 students and a lot of high expectations. Today, the school continues to flourish and there are 130 students, between 17 and 25 students per class, in each of the grades, 9-12. Half of this student body is comprised of Englewood residents and the other 50 percent come from all over the country. This gives the school both a community feel as well as universal appeal.

The academy students take honors and AP classes in core curricula that include English, math, history and science. They share classes with Dwight Morrow High School students in physical education, music and visual arts. They also join Dwight Morrow students in all clubs and athletic teams.

However, unlike the student body at the Dwight Morrow High School campus, the students at the Academies@Englewood also take up to two courses per semester in one of the five specialized academies, i.e., law and public safety, finance, biomedicine, information systems and pre-engineering. Each of these academies has a program manager and there is tutoring available.

Acceptance in the Academies@Englewood is not easy, and it has multiple elements. When they are in eighth grade, prospective students who have maintained excellent grades throughout their school years fill out an application and are asked to submit two teacher recommendations. They are also given standardized tests in writing and math.

Applicants for the Academies@Englewood are also interviewed 45 at a time in groups of 10 with two teachers supervising each group. In these interviews, students are given group activities and hypothetical ethical dilemmas to discuss, whereupon the teachers take note of the students that voice the solutions the soonest and who are most perceptive. The group is also divided into two teams in order to debate subjects following an allotted 15-minute research period during which they can use computers. The object of this exercise is to judge how well students work as a group, how effectively they collaborate, and how well each individual is able to make coherent points in new spontaneous situations.

Members of the Class of 2016.

Extracurricular activities and overall achievements are also considered when admission decisions are made.

Despite this rigorous application process, some 500 hopefuls a year vie to gain acceptance.

Given the high level of academics and the college prep curriculum of the Academies@Englewood, it is not surprising that 99 percent of the students go on to college, including many top universities.

“Academies@Englewood graduates have attended every Ivy League college except Harvard,” said Henry Pruitt, vice president of the Englewood Public School District Board of Education. “Actually, we did had a student, Theo Matthews, who received an offer from Harvard, but he turned it down to go to Stanford!”

Rochman, who teaches English, said that one of the most rewarding things about teaching at the Academies@Englewood is watching where the students go afterward.

Charlie Keohane, a business teacher in the inaugural class of 2002, agrees. Over the years, he has taught students who are now accountants, lawyers, IT analysts and systems engineers for multi-million dollar corporations. One graduate is a strength coach for the New York Giants, another a producer at MTV, and yet another a backup singer for the famous musician The Weeknd.

Veteran educator Jim Smith mentioned prodigy Michael Abolafia, who was the school valedictorian in 2013, then went on to become valedictorian at Columbia, and is now doing a master’s program at Oxford.

Aronson who co-chaired the reunion, delivered the most exuberant remarks of the evening. When asked what she thought of the huge turnout at the reunion, (223 people) Aronson glowed and said, “It’s just thrilling. It’s very gratifying, because I know that for 15 years these students have worked so hard, and when you look at the places where they went, it is wonderful.” She went on, “When I first got here, I thought it was an interesting experiment. It was my first teaching job, and I was astonished not only by their intelligence, but by their drive and how lucky they felt to be admitted to this school.”

Photos by Hillary Viders